≡ Menu

The first times in space

The possibility to travel into space

Literature has imagined it before science: Jules Verne with De la Terre à la Lune (From the Earth to the Moon) in 1865 or Herbert George Wells with The First Men in the Moon in 1901….

The first serious scientific work on the space travel – Исследование мировых пространств реактивными приборами (The Exploration of Cosmic Space by Means of Reaction Devices) – was completed in 1903 by a Russian high school mathematics teacher, Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky. It remained largely unknown outside the later Soviet Union but the principle that governs rocket propulsion, the Tsiolkovsky rocket equation, is named after him, although it had been discovered previously.

Others after him independently reached the same conclusions or proposed alternative approaches: for example, Tsiolkovsky advocated the use of liquid hydrogen and oxygen for propellant, whilst Robert Esnault-Pelterie was more incline to the use of atomic power.

Similarly to Tsiolkovsky who was inspired by Jules Verne’s fantasy, another major contributor to the rocketing science, American physicist Robert Hutchings Goddard, inspired by Herbert George Wells, patented fundamental concepts of rocketing in 1914. When he published ideas and experimental results, in 1920, in the work A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes, it included remarks about sending a solid-fuel rocket to the Moon! No surprise if it attracted significant attention and was both praised and ridiculed….

Nevertheless, in 1926, Goddard launched the world’s first liquid-fueled rocket!

What is “space”?

Now we need to clarify what space is because, depending on the definition, we have different attempts to launch a rocket that would qualify.

As surprising as it may sound, there is no firm scientific definition where space begins. Because the atmosphere reduces its pressure gradually with altitude, it is somehow arbitrary where we place the lower boundary of space. Three views can be listed because, in a way or another, they are being utilised.

The International Law specifies the lower boundary of space as the lowest perigee attainable by an orbiting space vehicle, but does not come with a precise altitude. Now, the lowest altitude at which an object in orbit can complete at least one full revolution without propulsion is around 150 km; with propulsion, this distance becomes around 129 km.

Apart from the controversy between US military and the NASA, the definition of an astronaut, which is still held today in the US, is a person who has flown more than 50 miles [80 km] above mean sea level, indirectly setting this altitude as the lower boundary of space.

Now, Theodore von Kármán, a Hungarian-American engineer and physicist, came up with a third definition of lower boundary of space that has been accepted by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) to define the boundary between aeronautics and astronautics: it is approximately the altitude at which an aircraft, in order to fly, would need to have a speed above its orbital one. Being just below 100 km, it’s been set at 100 km for simplicity: it’s the Kármán line.

It might be interesting to know that, above the Armstrong line (named after American physician Harry George Armstrong) at about 19 km above sea level, the atmospheric pressure goes below the vapour pressure of water. This means that gases dissolved in the blood will come out of suspension: blood starts boiling! That’s why, apart from oxygen supply, in order for a human being to survive above this altitude, a pressurised capsule is required.

The first rocket into space

On October 3rd 1942, Wernher von Braun’s team was the first to launch the A-4 (later called V-2) from Peenemünde, in the German island of Usedom, in the Baltic sea. The rocket broke the sound barrier and reached an altitude of just about 100 km. It was the world’s first launch of a ballistic missile and the first rocket ever to go into space, at least according to the NASA’s and, perhaps, FAI’s definitions.

The first animal in space

People tend to remember the dog Laika as the first animal in space – perhaps because she died in the experiment – but it happened in USSR on November 3rd 1957 and it was not the first time an animal had travelled into space.

With the aim to explore the effects of radiation exposure at high altitudes, where the atmosphere is not “thick” enough to filter them, on February 20th 1947, the US National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (the NASA was created only in 1958) launched a V-2 rocket (the same German invention from von Braun) carrying the Blossom capsule where fruit flies were introduced. The rocket reached 109 km above sea level in 3 minutes and 10 seconds, past both the NASA’s and the FAI’s definitions of the edge of space. Upon return after the capsule ejection and the parachute descent, the fruit flies were alive.

The first man-made object dropped into space

It was a 58cm-diameter polished metal sphere, with four external radio antennae. Its full name was Простейший Спутник-1 (Elementary Satellite-1) but the world would ended up calling it Sputnik. It was launched from the Tyuratam Soviet base (now Baikonur in Kazakhstan) on October 4th 1957. The radio signals it was transmitting were monitored by amateur radio operators all over the world. The signals continued until it ran out of batteries on October 26th 1957. Unfortunately, it’s been lost: Sputnik burned up while falling from orbit on January 4th 1958.

For many, despite the previous experiments all over the world, this achievement marked the start of the space era.

The first astronaut

Soviet pilot Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin was the first astronaut, when his Vostok-1 spacecraft completed an orbit of the Earth on April 12th 1961. He became immediately a worldwide celebrity and was awarded the hight Soviet honour: Hero of the Soviet Union.

The first man-made object leaving the Solar System

On August 25th 2013, the 722-kg space probe Voyager-1 has gone out of the solar system.

It was launched on September 5th 1977 with the primary mission to explore Jupiter and its satellites – completed in 1979 – and Saturn and its rings – completed in 1980: it was the first probe to provide detailed images of the two planets and their moons.

The probe is expected to continue its mission until 2025, when it will be no longer supplied with enough power from its generators to operate any of its instruments.

There was always the intent to let Voyager-1 go and reach the outer space. That’s why it carries a gold-plated audio-visual disc in the event that it is found by an intelligent extra-terrestrial life form. The disc carries photos of the Earth, some scientific information, the voice of people like the Secretary-General of the United Nations and the President of the United States expressing greetings. It includes also a medley, Sounds of Earth, with the sounds of whales, a baby crying, waves breaking on a shore and a collection of music: Mozart, Blind Willie Johnson, Johnny B. Goode by Chuck Berry and Valya Balkanska. Other Eastern and Western classics are included, together with performances of indigenous music from all over the world.

A question arises: when the probe is found, will they be able to read the disc and understand the messages in it?


Inspired by The Book of General Ignorance by Lloyd, Mitchinson & Fry.

If you liked that post, then try these...

Life and death in lightnings! by Armando Gherardi

Mice Don't Like Cheese! by Armando Gherardi

A cure for cancer in 1931 by Armando Gherardi

Bats Are Not Blind! by Armando Gherardi

The Water In The Sink And The Coriolis Effect by Armando Gherardi

When Carrots Were Purple.... by Armando Gherardi

{ 1 comment… add one }